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Parents sue to nix Thornton contract

SoVaNow.com / August 20, 2014
Nine parents, representing each of the nine election districts in Mecklenburg County, filed a petition in Circuit Court on Tuesday calling for the court to review and set aside the renegotiated contract of school superintendent James Thornton — approved by school trustees on July 31 and extending his employment until June 30, 2018.

The parents who petitioned the court — Marah Michael, Kimberly Mullins, Wanda Bailey, Kristi Haddaway, Leilani Todd, Michael Bryant, Kevin Newcomb, Kimberly Fuller, and Alyson Elliott — also accused School Board chairman Robert Puryear of committing malfeasance, by allowing the board to approve a contract that he had not read.

They based their petition on section 22.1-87 of the Virginia Code, which allows any parent, custodian, or legal guardian of a student in the public schools, “who is aggrieved by an action of the school board” to seek a judicial review of that action.

In particular, they are asking the court to revoke the renegotiated contract on the grounds that it violated section nine of Thornton’s earlier employment contract – the one that would have expired on June 30, 2016. Section Nine reads:

“Within six months prior to the termination date of this Agreement (which termination date is June 30, 2016), the Board and Superintendent shall communicate to each other their intent with respect to renewal of the Agreement. Such communications shall be treated confidentially and shall be made in closed meeting so long as such closed meeting does not violate the statutes of the Commonwealth of Virginia, and specifically the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, Section 2.2-3700, et. seq. of the Code of Virginia (1950), as amended. Nothing herein shall prohibit a mutually agreed upon dissolution of this Agreement.”

The parents argue that it is the province of the school board elected in November 2015, and which take office as of Jan. 1, 2016, six months prior to the termination date of the Thornton’s most recent prior contract, to either terminate, extend or renegotiate that contract. They alleged:

“Your petitioners herein feel the decision to approve the extension of the contract for Dr. James Thornton was preconceived, showed intentional and callous disregard for your petitioners and the citizens and tax payers of Mecklenburg County, was not in the best interest of the pupils of Mecklenburg County Public Schools, was an usurpation of the duty and prerogative of the board to be elected in November 2015, and further may create an additional financial burden on the citizens of Mecklenburg County.”

The nine, also object to the renegotiated contract on the grounds that it was approved against the wishes of the public and that it was passed before it was read or reviewed by School Board Chairman Puryear.

Over a dozen parents of students in the Mecklenburg County Public Schools and Mecklenburg County taxpayers spoke out against renegotiating Thornton’s contract at the July 31 school board meeting. The only people speaking in favor of a new contract were employees of the school system.

The majority of the school board was unmoved, voting in favor of the renegotiated contract. In the words of trustee Sandra Tanner, “sometimes the popular thing is not the right thing to do, and the right thing is not the popular thing to do.”

According to allegations set forth in the petition, Puryear admitted in the July 31 school board meeting, during which the renegotiated contract was approved, that he could not discuss the terms of the contract because he had neither seen nor read the renegotiated contract.

In support of these claims, petitioners filed with the Court a DVD recording of the July 31 meeting. It is the customary practice of the trustees to tape their meetings and upload them on the web for the public to view.

Elizabeth Ewing who serves as the director of legal and policy services for the Virginia School Board Association, said she is aware that parents in school divisions around the state have sought judicial relief in the past, but did not know the outcome of any of those suits. “This is not something we track” said Ewing.

She added, “This is the type of action that usually takes place in larger divisions.”

For the complainants in this case to prevail, they must prove that the school board acted “arbitrarily or capriciously, or abused its discretion.” According to Ewing, this is a “very high standard,” meaning it is often difficult for aggrieved parties to prevail in cases involving this standard.

Virginia’s Code provides little guidance on how to handle challenges like the one filed on Tuesday. Ewing said her advice to any school board or superintendent facing any legal action is to contact an attorney. The code section simply says, “Such review shall proceed upon the petition, the minutes of the meeting at which the school board’s action was taken, the orders, if any, of the school board, an attested copy of the transcript, if any, of any hearing before the school board, and any other evidence found relevant to the issues on appeal by the court.”

The judge hearing the case has broad discretion when it comes to the evidence he or she will look at before ruling. Moreover, there is no time limit set for making a ruling.

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Comments

Think god someone is speaking out on behalf of the parents of Mecklenburg schools it is time. Our children need it more now than ever.James Thornton needs to go again with his friends they are not thinking about the children the test scores show this along with the schools going from being on the top 15 too now being number 100 out of 115 schools.This is a crying shame.

Comments

What is with Mecklenburg County and running out superintendents? This has been going on since the 1980s and who would want to work here. The lawsuit will not fly and this will put more cost on the school division. This sounds like Glen Edwards and Dale Sturdifen stirring up problems in the community. We are never going to get a school built.

Comments

So Tina, Is a new school the answer to our problems? Will this make the facts disappear? Open your eyes, look at the facts and data.

Comments

According to Virginia Public School statics, Mecklenburg County Public Schools Rank 100th out 117 schools. To me that speaks volumes.

Comments

Let's see...About four years ago, cortez math was introduced, th beginning of the decline of math scores. Then, I can learn and everyday math. Now we are back to Cortez...do you see a pattern? This is a direct link to Thornton. The teachers did not decide to use these programs. Teachers have now been told that they can be stellar in the classroom, but if their lesson plan does not meet the ever-changing lesson plan template, that it means nothing. Soooo, low sol scores are correlated to poor lesson plans? I think not. Another way to intimidate teachers. While you are at getting rid of Thornton, get rid of his shady sidekick Hackney, who would be no better at the job, and all the rest of his buddies, especially the ones he has brought in from Cumberland.


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